The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Elegy: In ancient Greek and Roman times, any poem composed in elegiac meter (pairs of hexameter and pentameter lines composed primarily of dactyls). In Elizabethan times, elegy was often used to refer to love poems. Since the seventeenth century, the term has typically referred to reflective poems that lament the loss of someone or something (or loss or death more generally) but may also be used even more broadly to refer to any serious, reflective poem. Elegies written in English frequently take the form of the pastoral elegy.

EXAMPLES: Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) is a famous English elegy, as are John Milton’s “Lycidas” (1638), Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais” (1821), and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850). A more modern example is W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1940). In “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” (1946), Dylan Thomas struggled to resist the temptation to write an “elegy of innocence and youth,” concluding his poem with a stanza that is, nonetheless, eloquently elegiac in spirit and tone:

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,

Robed in the long friends,

The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,

Secret by the unmourning water

Of the riding Thames.

After the first death, there is no other.

Although elegy is not generally used with reference to songs, Don McLean’s “American Pie” (1971), which associates the death of singer Buddy Holly with the end of an idealistic and optimistic era, is elegiac in its subject and tone, as is Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” (1992), a rap tribute to dancer Trouble T-Roy, who died in 1990 on tour with Heavy D and the Boyz.